Up next? Seniors

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Vaccinations for oldest residents could begin as soon as next week

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Ouray County’s oldest residents could begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines next week if more doses arrive from the state.

The county has administered about ioo vaccines since receiving its first shipment on Dec. 22, and has another 100 doses still available to use after receiving a second shipment, Public Health Director Tanner Kingery said. The county expects 100 more doses to arrive soon but it’s not certain when that will happen.

Statewide, more than 127,000 people in Colorado have received their first dose of the vaccine, Gov. Jared Polis said Wednesday. So far, the state has received about 243,000 doses. Both the Moderna vaccine, which Ouray County has received, and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine require second doses three to four weeks after the initial shot. At this time, Ouray County hasn’t completed its first round of administering the highest-priority vaccines.

“We’re still working through firefighters, police and first responders,” Kingery said, who are at the top of the state’s priority list for the phased vaccine rollout. He said a majority of people eligible in that category have been willing to get vaccinated, though “there are some people who have turned it down.” It’s not clear how many have refused the vaccine or their reasons why.

Last week, Polis announced that people 70 and older, as well as teachers, grocery store employees and other “essential workers” in industries including food, agriculture and transportation, could receive the vaccine earlier than expected, in Phase 1B instead of Phase 2.

That category now includes more than 1.3 million people, and will take several months to complete. Coloradans age 70 and older will have access to the vaccine first before others in that category, under instructions clarified this week from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That age group makes up more than three-quarters of COVID-related deaths in the state, Polis said Wednesday, and “the more quickly we can get people 70 and up vaccinated, the more lives we can save.”

CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said the goal is to have 70 percent of people 70 and older vaccinated by Feb. 28. Essential workers, including teachers, will begin receiving vaccines in early March, she said Wednesday.

More than half of people over 70 are expected to receive their vaccines through hospitals, pharmacies and other health care providers, Ryan said, and about zo percent will likely receive them through local public health agencies and partners. Residents of nursing homes and longterm care facilities are expected to receive their vaccines through the facilities, which is being coordinated under federal partnerships with pharmacies.

Here in Ouray County, more than 20 percent of the population is expected to qualify for the vaccines designated for those age and older.

“We’ve got a pretty comprehensive list of people 70 and older, it’s over 900 people,” Kingery said. “So we have to be strategic on how we figure that out.”

Vaccinating the oldest residents first is a priority “The deaths we’ve seen in the county have been people in their 8os and older,” he said, so vaccinating the oldest residents first is aimed at preventing more deaths. They’ll also look to see who has filled out the county’s form indicating their interest in receiving the vaccine to determine the order of vaccinating people in that age group, he said. So far, 933 people have filled out the online form to be contacted when they become eligible for the vaccine.

Rebekah Stewart, the county’s public health nurse, has been administering the vaccines in the parking lot outside the public health office, but Kingery said plans are in the works to move the effort to the 4-H Center, where people can wait and receive their shots inside.

After receiving the vaccine, people must wait 15 minutes under observation for any side effects, and there’s limited space in the parking lot, where both vaccinations and testing are being done daily. “We’re going to need a bigger footprint to work out of,” he said. “We’re hoping that might be sooner than later that we can get over there.”

That assumes, however, that more vaccines arrive as planned, which he said remains unclear. “If we don’t have the doses, there’s no point to making things he said.

The county is receiving ioo doses at a time, in io vials that hold io doses each. The Moderna vaccine requires a second booster shot be given 28 days after the first dose, and the state has informed counties that for every dose sent out, equivalent numbers of second doses have been held back to ensure there are enough for people to receive both shots. Ouray County can use all 200 doses it has received so far right away, without needing to set aside half for the second round of shots because the state has already done that.

While Phase 1B includes a wide variety of people, there hasn’t been clear instruction yet on exactly who is eligible or exactly how many people will qualify for that category here, Kingery said. The state’s instructions include “frontline essential workers in education, food and agriculture, manufacturing, U.S. postal service, public transit and specialized transportation staff, grocery, public health, frontline essential human service workers, and direct care providers for Coloradans experiencing homelessness, essential officials from executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government, and essential frontline journalists! More than 600,000 people in the state are essential frontline workers, Polis said Wednesday.

There hasn’t been information, though, on exactly who would be considered an “essential worker” within those fields, or if anyone working in those industries would qualify. That remains one of Kingery’s outstanding questions. “I wish they would break it out a little more and be more specific, because I don’t know,” Kingery said. “I’m definitely looking for more clarity on that”

He’s also hoping to get more information about vaccination support available from the state, which he’s been told is available but hasn’t received details on. He submitted a request for assistance from people who are able to administer vaccines, but it’s not clear what that would actually look like and when and how long that would be available.

Each week, the county reports back to the state on how many vaccinations can be given per hour, day and week, Kingery said. That information is part of what determines how many doses are allocated to Ouray County.

The county can’t move into Phase 2 without permission from the state, “to keep us all on the same timeline,” Kingery said. Phase 2 also includes 60 to 69-year-olds and people with certain health conditions, as well as people who participated in vaccines trials but received placebos rather than active vaccines.

There’s a chance that if the county completes its Phase 1B vaccinations with some left over, the state could ask to have them sent back to be used elsewhere before moving to Phase 2. But Kingery said he thinks that’s unlikely. “I don’t really anticipate that happening with us because we’re so small,” he said.

COVID-19 hotline have increased as news of the vaccine’s availability has spread, Kingery said. Anyone interested in receiving the vaccine should fill out the online registration form, and they will be contacted when they become eligible. For more information, call the hotline at 970-626-3484.

Kingery asked the public to be patient with the speed the department is able to administer them.

“It’s not like we’re taking breaks and can get this done faster,” Kingery said at a multi-agency meeting last week. ‘We’re literally not taking lunches, not taking breaks and getting this done as fast as we can. I just encourage everyone to be patient with us as we work through this.”

‘This type of rollout has never been done in the history of medicine so people have to understand we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have, with the shipments we have, with the number of doses we get, with the guidance we get,” he said. “Sometimes it comes late and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. So we’re just really doing our best and I just want everyone to know that.”

Two cases of a new, more virulent strain of COVID-19 have been detected at the Colorado state lab through genome sequencing, Ryan said Wednesday. The new type of the virus, called the “B.1.1.7 variant,” was first found in the United Kingdom. An Elbert County man who had not traveled recently was the first person in the United States confirmed to have the mutated form of the virus on Dec. 29.

Kingery said he thinks the new strain was already circulating in the state, due to the man not having a travel history, and it was just detected first in Colorado due to improved technology at the state lab.

At this time, health officials believe the Moderna vaccine will provide some protection from the new strain, according to Polis’ statements. The new strain is not necessarily more deadly but health officials have warned it spreads more easily than the original virus.

Participants of the multi-agency meeting on Dec. 3o closed their discussion by thanking County Emergency Manager Glenn Boyd and Kingery for their hard work during 2020, which has included missed vacations, lots of overtime, and endless hours negotiating the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“I know we’ve said this often - there’s no playbook for how to do this and you guys have had to do a lot of things on the fly,” said Ouray Mayor Greg Nelson. “I’ve seen a lot of people work a lot of extra hours and work hard to do unified command in addition to their regular one or two other jobs.”

Nelson specifically commended Boyd and Kingery as well as the staff at the health department for their work during the pandemic, which started in March and is an ongoing emergency like no other they’ve ever dealt with in Ouray County. ‘You guys have given selflessly and I just wanted to say thanks.”

Ridgway Mayor John Clark seconded the sentiments.

‘You guys deserve way more thanks than we can even give,’ he said.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Email erin@ouraynews.com to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work